Since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced that they have shortened their name to simply “the Islamic State,” Western media have had difficulty knowing what to call them, especially because they are also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). But this name-change is not simply an attempt at re-branding: the terrorist group also prohibits anyone under their governance from calling them by the common Arabic abbreviation Da’ash (داعش, for الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام). The penalty for using the proscribed, but common colloquial, acronym is 80 lashes. What’s going on here? Continue reading
A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia. A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation. Both are worth reading.
By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events. The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion. It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures. When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else. Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.
Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading
It is true that Muslims are today a demographic majority in every country of the Middle East except Israel. (Even there, however, Muslims would be nearly a majority, if Palestinians in the Palestinian Territories had the same citizenship rights as the Israeli settlers.) But such a blanket statement obscures more than it reveals. There is a vast difference between Iran, which is almost 100% Muslim, and Lebanon, where Muslims are less than two thirds of the population and the government is divided roughly evenly between Muslims and Christians (with the requirement that the president be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, among various other requirements). Granted, the population of Iran is many times that of Lebanon, but the point is that the other countries in the region (including Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq, all very populous) are between these two extremes.
Nor are all Muslims alike. Differences between Sunni Muslims and Shiʿites are only the tip of the iceberg: at least four “legal schools” of Sunnis and several branches of Shiʿa Islam all have different requirements and regulations. Fellow feeling between Sunnis and Shiʿites is a very recent development, and has not overcome sectarian violence in Syria and Iraq nor the regional rivalry between (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and (Shiʿite) Iran. These differences are independent of the gradations between secularist and devout Muslims or between modernist and Salafi Islam. Intra-Muslim diversity means that Muslims may feel more fellow feeling with certain non-Muslims than with other Muslims, and the demographic strength of Islam is more attenuated. This also leads to greater differences between countries: Egypt has more Coptic Christians than Shiʿites, while Iraq is about two-thirds Shiʿites and one third Sunnis.
When the historical perspective is taken, the present overwhelming demographic dominance of Islam is seen as a relatively recent development in some parts of the Middle East. The Middle East has been mostly ruled by Muslims since the seventh century, although the Byzantine Empire continued to rule most of what is today Turkey until the eleventh century, the Crusaders ruled parts of eastern Turkey, western Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine/Israel for a couple centuries, and most broadly but most briefly the non-Muslim Mongols under Hulegu and his successors conquered all of Iran, Iraq, most of Turkey, and (repeatedly but ephemerally) Syria. The religion of the rulers is frequently taken as characteristic of the religion of the land, and so the Middle East is often called the “land of Islam,” in Arabic dar al-Islam, or the “central Islamic lands.” That this term doesn’t simply mean that Islam came from the Middle East is shown by the fact that the Middle East is never called, by parallel, the “land of Judaism” or the “land of Christianity,” though both also came from that region. In French, the confusion between religion of the ruler and religion of the land is even starker: areas under Islamic ruler are simply labeled l’Islam.
But the religion of Muslim rulers should not be taken as determinative for the population as a whole. Muslim rulers frequently employed non-Muslims to carry out bureaucratic work, at least into the fifteenth century in much of the Middle East, and later in Ottoman Constantinople. With rising European interest in the Middle East, local Christians and Jews were often the translators and intermediaries between the newly arrived foreigners and the local Muslim rulers and populace. Middle Eastern non-Muslims did not only attain prominence through European intervention, however: Faris al-Khoury was already in government before the French claimed Syria in 1920, and went on to become Prime Minister of Syria twice, though a (Greek Orthodox turned Presbyterian) Christian. Tariq ʿAziz was the deputy Prime Minister of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and a Chaldean Catholic (a group of native Iraqi Christians who, beginning in the 16th C, started entering communion with the Roman papacy). George Sabra, an active voice in the Syrian Civil War, has been president of the Syrian National Council and acting president of the Syrian National Coalition (the opposition group favored by the USA and Western Europe). The history of the Middle East, even in the last century, cannot be told accurately without naming certain key non-Muslims.
Although these individuals are exceptional, they are not unique. They are rare because they are at the highest echelons of government, where they were not selected because of but despite their non-Muslim religious affiliation. Many more non-Muslims have been employed by Middle Eastern governments, both pre-modern and modern, at lower ranks. And the broader population of non-Muslims, not employed by government, was a significant portion of many Middle Eastern countries into the twentieth century. Before 1915 in eastern Anatolia and 1923 in western Anatolia, Christians were almost a fifth of the population (mostly Armenians and Syriac Christians in the east, Greeks in the west) in what would become the Republic of Turkey. Such a proportion means that, depending on levels of integration, every Muslim would know not merely one but several Christians, and may need to do business with them. Christianity in Iraq has dipped from 10% around the middle of the 20th C to less than 2% today. We do not know when Muslims became even a bare majority of the population in Egypt or Syria, but it was certainly not before 1250. That may seem like ancient history to many modern readers, but that means Islam spent at least six centuries as a ruling minority religion, almost half of the history of the “Islamic” Middle East to date, and both countries still have Christian minorities around 10% of the population, absent from parts of the countryside but certainly visible in all cities.
Today a higher proportion of Middle Easterners are Muslim than at any point in the past, but the proportion has changed significantly even within the last century. Nevertheless, Christians have continued to play a prominent, if subordinate, role in government. And the divisions between different Christian and Muslim groups reduce the sense, within the Middle East, that “basically everyone agrees with me.” People from the Middle East know there is religious diversity. For westerners to regard the Middle East as “Islam + Israel” is negligently over-simplistic.
The Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star reported today that efforts to release the two bishops of Aleppo who were abducted in April 2013 are, according to the Lebanese intelligence chief seeking their release, “complicated” but “on the right track.” Due to the sensitivity of the situation, he said, he could not give any details. The same intelligence chief helped secure the release of the abducted nuns of Maaloula earlier this month, so he could be in the know. I have previously questioned the veracity of leaked reports about the whereabouts of Metropolitan Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji by people who clearly stood to gain from the publicity, and some news reports have simply “stirred the pot.” But I must confess I don’t know Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim’s profile and where he might fit in Lebanese (and Syrian) politics. So I can only hope that this news is real, and may lead to the end of these bishops’ captivity.
Many Americans have a simplistic view of “all Arabs” being the same. (Or is it “all Muslims”? The two phrases are usually synonymous, and sometimes includes Sikhs.) I just read a news article that lays out the political differences between the member states of the Arab League clearly and concisely. I thought I’d link to it here, mostly for myself, so I can find it again later.
Today I read a commentary by Fr. Samir Khalil Samir on the sections regarding Islam in Pope Francis‘s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium from last November. Fr. Samir is a well-regarded scholar of Muslim-Christian relations and Islamic Studies, as well as a Jesuit from Egypt. As usual, I do not agree with everything he says about Islam, but he does have more experience than most people in actual inter-religious dialogue. It is necessary to warn that the summary at the top just under the title significantly skews the balance of Fr. Samir’s remarks as a whole, so do not judge the whole based solely on the abstract. I link to the article here as a thought-provoking perspective.
A few days ago the Telegraph ran an opinion piece by Louis Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon. Patriarch Sako is an Iraqi with a long history of calling for peace and dialogue in his country. In this piece, he argues that just as Christianity contributed to Islam in the first centuries of the new religion, so it must learn how to do so again, that Middle Eastern Christians should refuse to emigrate from the Middle East, and that other countries should apply pressure to Middle Eastern countries to ensure that Middle Eastern Christians are not merely a tolerated minority, but citizens with full equality under the law. It is an interesting piece and well worth reading.
Unfortunately many western readers may not be aware of the degree of the crisis that Middle Eastern Christianity is experiencing, and therefore Patriarch Sako’s points may sound like special pleading. In part this is due to the human tendency to simplify for the sake of memory, and therefore the Middle East is (mis-)remembered as entirely Muslim for at least a millennium, if not since Muhammad himself. An article I currently have under review reveals something of how mistaken this is for the case of Syria and Palestine, where even a millennium ago the rural population seems to have been almost entirely non-Muslim, and since in pre-industrial agrarian societies rural populations necessarily dwarfed urban populations, this means that the Muslims were a small portion of the population in the area we now know as Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. When did Islam become not only the religion of the rulers but also the religion of most of the subjects in the Middle East? The answer must vary for different areas, but scholars presently have no plausible answer. In the case of Syria and Palestine, I would guess it was after the Crusader period, into the thirteenth or fourteenth century. In the case of Lebanon, it was in the early twentieth century. There were still Christian bishops in Arabia in the tenth century (despite the rumor that Muhammad expelled all Christians from the peninsula). Certain areas of Iraqi Kurdistan are still majority or exclusively Christian, although those areas are smaller and more remote with each passing decade.
One interesting statistic which Patriarch Sako cites is that 850,000 Iraqi Christians have left the country since the US invasion in 2003, which is over half of the Christian population in Iraq before the war. When Patriarch Sako was born Christians were 10% of the Iraqi population, while today it must be around 2% (=(1,500,000-850,000)/31,234,000). A similar trend happened slightly earlier in Palestine over the course of the last 90 years, and is ongoing with the Christian populations of Syria and Egypt. When I was in Aleppo three years ago (before the current violence), I met an Iraqi Christian who was trying to get to Toronto. The Middle Eastern Christian population is being erased culturally, historically, and demographically.
And yet, it is easy to understand why Christians leave the Middle East. Extremist groups kill Christians because they view Middle Eastern Christians as foreign agents and illegitimate members of Islamic society, a view which is alien to historical Islam. On the other hand, the dominant view of traditional Muslim legal authorities, that Jews and Christians should be tolerated as long as they pay an extra tax and never do anything to imply that their religion is better than Islam (such as riding a horse or ringing a church bell), has always left non-Muslim populations vulnerable to violence by extremists. After Muslim Brotherhood supporters torched dozens of Coptic churches last August, the Coptic authorities again pointed out that they do not have equal or adequate protection from the Egyptian police. That is why Patriarch Sako is calling not merely for Christians to be viewed as a “tolerated minority,” but as full citizens with equality before the law. But when the law is not doing its job, finding a less dangerous place to live is fully understandable, even as it makes matters that much more difficult for those left behind.
What distresses me is the degree to which non-Middle-Easterners often unwittingly, through sheer ignorance, adopt the new xenophobic viewpoint of the extremists and consider Middle Eastern Christians as some kind of outsiders in Middle Eastern society. They were part of that society long before Islam, and have never ceased to be a part of that society. Indeed, Middle Eastern society is more dominantly Islamic now than at any point in the past. And yet most educated people in the West are completely unaware of this past, and even historians with their over-developed desire to distinguish between terms still regard “Middle Eastern history” and “Islamic history” as fully synonymous. (Neither is a subset of the other, for not only have non-Muslims always been a large portion of Middle Eastern society, but there are more Muslims outside the Middle East than in it, since Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country.) I think progress toward a more inclusive and peaceful Middle Eastern society will be made when people recognize that that society has always been more diverse than today’s propagandists of whatever stripe would have us believe.